RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the next few minutes, we're going to hear about an unusual battle for hearts and minds. It's taking place in an area of Pakistan that's seen heavy fighting, as Pakistan's army tries to push out Islamic militants. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.
PHILIP REEVES: This is a story about two men. They're about as different as two men can be, yet they do have a couple of things in common. They're sworn enemies, they've both got their eyes fixed on the sweep of mountains along Pakistan's northwestern frontier, and they're both masters of the art of radio.
Mr. MAULANA FAZLULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: This is one of them.
Mr. FAZLULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: Maulana Fazlullah - he's known as the Radio Mullah because of his passion for broadcasting. He has a long beard and an even longer list of atrocities against his name, committed by his men in the name of jihad. The Radio Mullah leads the Taliban in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Right now, he's hiding somewhere in the mountains after suffering a heavy defeat.
This is the other man:
Mr. AKIL MALIK(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: Akil Malik - he's portly, clean-cut and has a winning smile, a stack of media qualifications and a talent for hosting talk shows. Malik works for the public relations arm of the Pakistani military.
The story begins many months ago. Back then Swat Valley was slipping into the hands of the Taliban. The Pakistani military wasn't popular there. Residents accused it of killing civilians by indiscriminately shelling villages. The Valley's people had limited access to the media.
Malik says the Radio Mullah and his colleagues from the Taliban had jumped into the gap.
Mr. MALIK: Most of the times, they would carry out the mobile broadcasts. They would mount their transmitters on mules and donkeys and then they would leave them. They would train mules and donkeys and they would start moving. They would move at the top of the ridge on the skyline.
REEVES: The people of northwest Pakistan are mostly Pashtuns. They follow a very conservative kind of Islam. Swat's somewhat more relaxed. Even so, its women tend to stay at home, providing the Radio Mullah with a captive audience.
Mr. MALIK: Those women who are residing alone with their male counterparts in the house, they would listen to the radio. Initially, he would preach peace. He, in fact, was very firebrand, very firebrand speaker. He would talk with them of the topics of their likings.
REEVES: A lot of the time, Fazlullah, the Radio Mullah, broadcast his own religious speeches. Ahmed Shah(ph), a resident of Swat's main city, Mingora, says Fazlullah drew his power from his use of the radio.
Mr. AHMED SHAH: Because before this FM radio, no one knows about Maulana Fazlullah. Because of this radio, he became an influential person.
REEVES: Akil Malik says once the Radio Mullah thought he'd won over the women of Swat, his peaceful message changed.
Mr. MALIK: He asked them to rise in the name of Islam, rise in the name of religion, rise as the most important part of society - force your men to fight for the cause of Allah and for the cause of militancy.
REEVES: Malik, you'll recall, is an army PR man. He felt it was wrong the mullah had such free and unchallenged range of the airwaves. Malik persuaded his bosses to allow him to launch a competitor.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: This is it: FM 96 Radio Swat. It was launched in February. These are its headquarters in the studios of Pakistan's state-run radio in the capital Islamabad. Today, a woman phones in from Swat with a song she's written about price hikes and power shortages, set to a famous Pashtun tune.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: The Taliban in Swat, bombed music and CD shops.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: Radio Swat plays music, even rock and roll sometimes. Malik says the audience likes it.
Mr. MALIK: After the launch of my radio, you'd be astonished. After a month or so, Mullah Radio, they also started to play music. So, this was my first success.
REEVES: The battle for the airwaves in Swat quickly became personal.
Mr. MALIK: Mullah would normally - I'm talking of Mullah Fazlullah - he would normally deliver his speech at eight o'clock in the evening. My most popular music program - in English, if I translate it - it is soothing of heart with music. It's really romantic program. I would broadcast that program from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
REEVES: So, you were making sure you competed with him and…
Mr. MALIK: Of course.
REEVES: Malik says the Taliban threatened his staff and tried to attack Radio Swat's transmitters and jam its broadcasts. He decided it would be a good idea to encourage the militants to take part in phone-ins, so that he could take them on head-to-head. It wasn't easy persuading his colleagues, he says.
Mr. MALIK: This was the most difficult part of it, convincing my entire administration that we have to fight this ideology, then we have to fight it. We have to provide them an opportunity to discuss.
REEVES: Malik says eventually the militants did make contact. His staff made this recording, which they believe is the Radio Mullah himself, calling in to deny allegations his Taliban fighters were fleeing.
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: Malik says his 40 or so staff at Radio Swat are all civilians. He insists Radio Swat is an independent radio station that focuses on religion, culture and community news. It was launched with government funds, he says, but is now self-financing. This doesn't seem to have convinced some of his listeners.
This man's phoned in to tackle Malik on air, over whether Radio Swat's government-run.
Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. MALIK: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: None of this seems to deter Malik. His big media rival, the Radio Mullah, is now in retreat. The Pakistani army has driven him and his Taliban fighters out of most of Swat and into the hills. The mullah's not been heard on the air for weeks now, though some in Swat fear he may be back.
Malik has a new project in the works, this time focusing on Pakistan's tribal belt.
Mr. MALIK: It is FM 96, Radio Waziristan Network, the voice of peace.
REEVES: Radio Waziristan is due to go on air in the next week or two. Malik acknowledges it won't be easy.
Mr. MALIK: As far as Waziristan is concerned, Waziristan is a very hard nut to crack, because this is the most difficult area in Pakistan.
REEVES: Waziristan is a stronghold of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Islamic fundamentalism abounds. Malik doesn't expect many women to phone into his shows. Many people there don't own personal radio sets. Yet, Malik insists he will find plenty of listeners up there in the mountains.
Mr. MALIK: Women, youth, elders, even Taliban - they will all be at the listening end. That I can assure you.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.